By on January 28, 2020

Policing a population is expensive. Law enforcement departments around the globe have long sought a way to tamp down costs or, more often, find better forms of supplemental revenue. Unfortunately, sending the SWAT team on a raid or hiring additional officers to patrol the highway for speeders costs money. But the price of surveillance technology continues to go down, encouraging agencies to tap into their rather robust capabilities — potentially at our expense.

China, the world leader in mass government surveillance, already has the ability to use its vast network of cameras to take over all manner of on-the-street policing. Electronic eyes are everywhere, often networked to facial recognition or plate identification technologies that enable authorities to mail you a ticket for speeding, jaywalking, or whatever else the patrolman failed to see you do in person. While some of the penalties stop at being publicly shamed via a national database or having your social credit score dropped (potentially barring you from some goods and services), these systems have also increased the number of finable offenses that make departments money.

While similar systems have been available in the United States, it seems the country’s penchant for liberty has drastically slowed their implementation. Yet it’s still happening, and there’s reason to suggest items like license plate readers and facial recognition software will soon become standard equipment for many (if not most) North American police departments. 

There are two ways to look at this. Either it’s the second coming of the police radio, which made evading the police much more difficult in the second half of the 20th century, or an affront to our collective right to privacy.

What makes it tricky is that license plate readers and facial recognition tech works in tandem with a database and often keeps tabs on where you’ve been and where you’re going before a crime is committed. For some that’s a bridge too far, bordering on pre-crime — a term coined by science fiction author Philip K. Dick to criticize the criminal justice system’s tendency to focus on prospective harm, rather than acts actually committed.

Dystopian parallels aside, WIRED recently tried to assess the growth of these types of surveillance systems in the United States and Canada, addressing their evolution, deployment, and the surrounding criticisms.

Using Rotterdam, New York, as an example, the outlet noted the town’s department only has 45 officers on staff, yet still manages to log the license plates of around 10,000 vehicles each day as they move through the city. Jeffrey Collins, a lieutenant who supervises the department’s uniform division, said the system opened up new doors. Tracking data is kept and officers can parse through it to identify a vehicle and then cross-reference its plate, make, model and color.

“Let’s say for instance you had a bank robbed,” he theorized. “You can look back and see every car that passed.”


The tech industry’s current enthusiasm for AI was kindled by a research breakthrough in 2012 that vastly improved the ability of software to recognize objects in photos. One result is progress on still-nascent projects such as autonomous vehicles and software that diagnoses cancer. In the real world, more straightforward applications of the technology have made tracking faces or license plates much cheaper and more accurate.

Automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, first appeared at police departments in the 2000s, as specialized and expensive cameras. Collins says today those devices typically cost $15,000 to $20,000. But last year Rotterdam embraced a newer generation of ALPR technology, software that can discern plates from more or less any conventional security camera. Rotterdam’s supplier Rekor Systems charges as little as $50 a month to read plates from a single camera.

“The software is a lot more cost effective than buying a full system,” says Collins. “That can change everything.” Drivers in Rotterdam used to be watched by three conventional license plate readers, two fixed and one mounted to a police vehicle. Now, five of the town’s public security cameras also are connected to Rekor’s software, significantly expanding the police’s view of the movements of local vehicles.

Rekor is hardly alone. The tech industry is sprinting to see who can deliver the best surveillance hardware possible and dozens of companies have come out of the woodwork to participate. Some cater to police departments while others focus on home security, but their goals are largely the same. While some have identified the potential for harm, even these concerns are narrow in scope.

Axon, a supplier of police body cams, plans to sell license plate readers as an add-on to its in-car video system in 2020. However, when it made its announcement, it also released a report from its AI ethics board about the dangers of using ALPRs and recommended some government regulation (of which there currently is very little). Still, its fears focused largely on the possibility of lower income communities being overly policed or AI’s feeding into racial basis, ignoring the broader implications of widespread surveillance.

Privacy advocates also feel more should be done. Daniel Schwarz, who works on policy for the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the technology’s increasing affordability means restrictions need to be placed on their use very soon — especially as companies attempt to aggregate traffic data so it can be easily shared between departments.

“Widespread deployment is creating invasive databases with a comprehensive record of people’s movements,” Schwarz explained. “That can show whether you’re going to a certain medical clinic, your political interests, and religious beliefs.”

WIRED noted that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies make tens of thousands of license plate queries each year, thanks to an $6 million ALPR system built for the LAPD by Palantir. The good news is that California requires departments issue some form of privacy policy if they use the system, and the state’s Highway Patrol must delete all ALPR data every 60 days. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few states that has any laws governing the practice.

Asked about his own department’s data retention policies, Rotterdam’s Collins said  “as long as we possibly can,” adding that they already use the ALPR database everyday.

These systems are definitely coming and will undoubtedly make it more difficult to avoid punishment stemming from minor infractions, perhaps while saving some lives in the process. But we must also ask ourselves if this evolving surveillance standard is for the greater good ⁠— and what kind of ramifications might occur as ALPRs and the like become more commonplace.

[Image: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock]


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37 Comments on “Driving Dystopia: License Plate Readers Are Becoming Increasingly Common...”

  • avatar

    If you’re the police, who will police the police?

    HOMER: I dunno, Coast Guard?

  • avatar

    And the poh poh will keep the data forever. Say something bad takes place in Alden NY on Jan 15 2020. Joe Blow did it.

    They will search EVERY data base to see where joe blow has been in that car/tag since the beginning of time.

    Big Brother. I dont know if i m for or against it.

  • avatar

    I am a Libertarian and also respect the police.

    However, I defend the Constitution against illegal activities and making the police’s job the easiest possible is not a right they have; in fact, the right of me to due process in searches prohibits the police from easy hacking into my phone, computer, or recording my travels in a vehicle.

    With that said, since traveling on a public road is not a right, I fully understand the police’s desire to record license plates the easiest way possible. But they should not be able to store license plate data indefinitely and should not be able to even access that data without a specific court order/warrant. There is no reason for police to sniff around things or to snoop. If they have probable cause to look for me, then let them go through the constitutional hoops to secure a warrant and then have at it sniffing through their license plate data.

    And he’s the rub – since that data will also be able to create patterns of my life, they have no right to that on a general basis. A court order/warrant would be a barrier to them just following a hunch and incorrectly identifying me. We all know that cameras at stoplights are often wrong and provide false information. I do not want the police to harass me without having taken the effort to protect my Constitutional rights.

    The police are necessary, but the Constitution does protect me, not them. If they want to do their job right, they’ll purse the Constitutional means that allow them to do their job while protect my rights, your rights, or anyone else’s rights.

    • 0 avatar

      Amen Brother.

      I was against red-light and speed cameras because I’d much rather have a human calling the balls and strikes than a robot.

    • 0 avatar

      “since traveling on a public road is not a right,”

      I think it is. Otherwise we are all under house arrest and can only go out by the permission of the government, and that’s obviously not correct. How would we exercise our right to peaceably assemble without using public (“we own them”) roads?

      Some clarify that *driving* is a privilege and I see the point, yet still find that debatable. But traveling in general is a right.

      • 0 avatar

        You clearly have a right to walk, or to use a common carrier, on public highways where doing so is not prohibited.

        You most likely have the right to use a vehicle for which a license is not required, such as a bicycle or a skateboard.

        The Supreme Court has made crystal-clear on several occasions that you do NOT have the right to drive a motor vehicle without a valid license.

        • 0 avatar

          But only as long as obtaining a license to do so, is pretty easy for darned near anybody.

          The government can regulate how you excercise a right. But not ban you from exercising it altogether. As in, the Government can legitimately _regulate_ exactly how you go about exercising your right to free movement. For example, by driving on the right side instead of all over, by demonstrating basic competency by way of a license etc. But not, even de facto under pretense of overly hard to comply with licensing rules, effectively _ban_ you from doing so altogether.

      • 0 avatar

        “since traveling on a public road is not a right”

        The bicycle people would like to have a word with you.

    • 0 avatar

      As a fellow long time Libertarian, who also believes in the rule of law, I don’t see any barriers to finding a happy medium that respects both our Constitutional rights and helps the police keep criminals behind bars as much and often as possible.
      I’m fine with license plate data, it’s a license through the state after all. They are entitled to that data. I don’t have a problem with a system that automatically flags those license plates that aren’t valid. After that though, they have to follow the established rules. Warrant, etc.

      Facial recognition is a different story. That’s personal. I want civil libertarians to fight that data gathering to their last breath. I know it’s a losing cause but our government has zero basis for gathering that data.

  • avatar

    Privacy is hard to find. I just read an expose that these connected video doorbell cams are selling your info to Farcebook and other databases.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, and they have sweetheart deals with the police that let the police have automatic access to the recordings off your doorcam.

      • 0 avatar

        @dwford: Not necessarily true. The police are required to request that data from the doorcam owner in at least some cases unless said owner is the subject of an investigation.

        • 0 avatar

          “The police are required to request that data from the doorcam owner”

          And this is bypassing checks. Before police needed a warrant to even follow you, record you, etc. Now, they just go to a doorbell owner.

          • 0 avatar

            A. The owner of said doorbell, etc. is not REQUIRED to give that information away, though a warrant can force the issue.

            B. If the recording is one of an attempted crime against the owner of the home or an investigation of a crime in the vicinity of the camera, I would think you would want that video seen by the authorities–unless you were the one perpetrating that crime.

            C. Cameras have been used far more to clear the innocent than to convict the guilty.

    • 0 avatar

      Privacy really is hard to find and in the Borderland area the banks of cameras at Border Patrol stations is intimidating.

      Add to that all the cameras at traffic lights, shopping malls, parking lots, etc, and now doorbell cameras with a view of the street, and there aren’t many places where anyone can run to or hide.

      Then again the SCOTUS has ruled that in public areas we do not have the presumption of privacy.

  • avatar

    Say no to surveillance, let the lawyers and housing affordability decide who is at fault and who needs to pay and who should suffer instead.

    I paid a lot of money to be segregated from crime, I don’t care what the poor guys have to deal with, it is not my business that they are too poor to be protected and I have to give up some privacy to make them safer.


  • avatar

    Here’s a question for you: How many of you currently use an EZ-Pass system for drive-through tolls? It used to be that you needed a specific transponder to use the system but is soon turning to license plate readers and eliminating the transponder entirely, meaning anybody going through the tolls now travel non-stop and have the bill (unless subscribed and on automatic payments) mailed to their home or office, wherever the vehicle is registered. It is possible that they can even measure the speed of the vehicle, depending on how the cameras are set up (coming and going, for instance) as the distance between cameras can be precisely measured and the timing between head-on and rear images calculated to a near-exact speed (to tenths or even hundredths of a mile per hour.)

    Now, personally I believe the convenience factor is great… but it would be so easy not only to use the electronic tolling as a speed trap but could ‘conveniently’ have signs disappearing as they approach a toll and see a driver charged for a toll they weren’t expecting. Also, I have already heard of errors in one test location where cars were ticketed for exceeding a speed limit that was not set to take effect until days later (usually including a photo of the car and driver in question.)

    So convenience is one factor but clearly there is potential for misuse or mistake in programming for any other purpose.

  • avatar

    For once the paranoiacs are right…..


  • avatar

    Simple, I have placed luggage racks on the VW, you can see my plate if you are sitting in a car behind me, not from a gantry or side readers. Doesn’t help the DD but…

  • avatar

    When I was a young pup I was taught that in the U.S. you could travel without restriction, and the commies were the one always asking for your papers.

    Now I learn I need to apply for some kind of ‘Real ID’ with a cute little gold star. Gold star – why is that ringing a bell?

    • 0 avatar

      That’s what inevitably happens, once people are suckered into idiocies like publicly visible license plates.

      License plates should always have been INSIDE the car. Under a lock you could only be legally forced to open by a valid search warrant.

      As always, once the scum is allowed a foot in the door, pretty soon follows the Swat team looking for assets they can make you forfeit. It’s only a matter of time.

      • 0 avatar

        Seriously, stuki you are a genius. License plates and driver’s licenses should only be inspected when there is a probable cause. After all we are not required to wear a gov’t issued ID on our backs. Yet.

  • avatar

    BIG BROTHER and HAL coming to you soon! “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel!”

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Minority Report. Definitely more Big Brother.

  • avatar

    In China it already is a reality. This and face recognition when you open any door, walk any crosswalk, walk any street and so on. Chinese like it and Americans married also like it (as if they have a choice).

    I am afraid that US is dangerously falling behind of China in development of face recognition and AI. The reason why Chinese and assorted Americans like it because it reduces crime statistics. As someone who lived under socialist regime I can attest that socialism dramatically reduces crime if you do not count human right abuses by government. So make the right choice in November.

    • 0 avatar

      “I am afraid that US is dangerously falling behind of China in development of face recognition and AI.”

      And I am relieved the likes of shell first, then shell again Afghan freedom fighters and their ilk elsewhere, are outbreeding both quite handsomely. While having the sense to properly arm themselves to deal with aspiring totalitarian surveilers and their kit as well.

  • avatar

    It’s not just police, or even quasi-law-enforcement. I know of a college that is switching to plate readers and away from parking stickers.

    • 0 avatar

      ” I know of a college that is switching to plate readers and away from parking stickers.”

      Plate readers are already in use at most if not all colleges/universities out west, but on-campus registration and parking stickers are still required for those who want to park on campus.

      I’m thinking that plate readers are used to record and identify non-student and non-faculty people who enter school property because all other school employees have their own parking lots away from the campus.

    • 0 avatar

      The college my son goes to and my daughter has graduated from has been using that since before she started. On the one hand it was nice because you could put down two license plate numbers so they could share a pass when their schedules were different.

  • avatar

    Many communites, both city and suburban, have cameras on roads in and out of the community. Most toll booths you pass in the NY area photgraphs the car as well as pings the ez pass . There are a LOT of EZ pass readers for statistics, not enforcement or tolling purposes.

    Un mentioned are the many private plate readers, used for repo work. They too are building databases you are in but can’t control.

    My little Village has plate readers in the train station parking lot….monthly parkers are in the database, and all the parking officer need do is drive up and down the rows till the gadget pings. Makes it much easier for the Village and catches scofflaws quickly.

    That data, along with a lot of other Towns, goes to the private company that provides the gadgets and the ticketing computers…..

  • avatar

    I’m just glad I’m old so that I can shuffle off this mortal coil before all this demented bullsh!t turns everyone into paranoid sacks of sh!t afraid of their own shadow. Everyone talks about the social credit system in China, but there’s no difference here. Blacklisted for a job by one company? Try getting a job anywhere else. Malls here have facial recognition cameras in those big signboards at entrances where store locations/maps are shown. Why? Licence plate readers, CCTV everywhere, electric meters that log your usage against time-of-day. You can’t take a crap without some database knowing.

    Freedom? There isn’t any. Those in charge want to stay that way, so intrusion in your personal life will continue. When they put chips in your neck like we do with pets to monitor your vital signs and how much you eat and sweat and record your dreams, you might as well say goodbye to being a human being, you became a mere human bean to be tracked and manipulated, and to be snuffed if you complain too much. “Oops, sorry, Mrs Smith, your husband was a no-good lying, cheatin’ traitor who denied our country is free too many times to too many people. Pick a trusted replacement from this list.”

  • avatar

    As always, the money factor is the problem. Companies, such as Vigilant Technologies, offer not only police departments access to their massive plate database, but to repo people, and pretty much anybody who ponies up for the service. So plate readers can be all over and you might not even know. I asked my PD friend in FL to check for my plates in the system. Four of the six plates came up. Interesting to note that they don’t (yet) have the ability to segregate by state plate so he had a small amount of digging to do. The only cars not in the system were those that are never parked on the street or are used sparingly. So it is certainly possible to track a person’s movements and with enough data, determine a lot about their daily life. One can argue about whether this tool is of great value for the police, but the idea that more data about individuals going into the hands of private is not a good one. Privacy is dying at a rapid rate and unless the citizens open their mouths and close their wallets to the offending companies, we are done as a free society.

    Interesting to note that plate readers were the holy grail for the parking industry, but that use is only a tiny fraction of where you will find plate readers.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Waaaa…they want to track me with my plate. That’s wrong. ow let me plug in that Samsung/Apple/Google tracking device I paid all that money for.

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